The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects transsexuals from discrimination. Although in this case, discrimination referred to — among other things — prison officials placing a man who claimed to be a woman in a men’s prison. The implications for the application of the ADA are believed to be far-reaching.
This ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of 41-year-old former Fairfax County Correctional Center inmate K. Williams.
Williams’s attorney Joshua Erlich told CNN that the court’s decision “is a really meaningful win for trans people more broadly because this opinion applies not just (to) people who are incarcerated, but for workplace accommodations, for public accommodations, and in any other context in which the ADA provides disability protections.”
In November 2018, Williams was initially placed amongst female inmates and provided women’s underwear. However, upon prison nurse Xin Wang discovering that Williams had male genitalia, Williams was then housed with other male prisoners.
Upon Williams’s release in 2019, Williams sued Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, prison nurse Xin Wang, and another defendant referred to in court documents as Deputy Garcia.
The lawsuit alleged that Williams had been subjected to violations of the ADA, the U.S. Constitution, and common law; that during Willliams’ six-month stint in jail, Williams experienced delays in “medical treatment,” was harassed by other inmates, and faced “persistent and intentional misgendering and harassment by prison deputies.”
Kincaid argued that gender dysphoria, which Williams claimed prison officials had failed to adequately treat, was not a disability under the ADA, as it is “an identity disorder not resulting from physical impairments.” The Hill indicated that Kincaid’s assertion was in fact correct based on the ADA, adopted in 1990.
However, Circuit Judge Diana Motz struck a distinction between gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder, citing the American Psychiatric Association’s 2013 update of its original diagnosis.
Claiming that gender dysphoria has a “known physical basis” and “concerns itself primarily with distress and other disabling symptoms,” Motz sided with Williams. Motz also noted that should gender dysphoria and gender identity not be categorically distinct, Williams’s dysphoria would still be covered under the ADA as it had a “known physical basis.”
Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum noted that the difference between the two disorders can be chocked up to “nomenclature,” suggesting the distinction is strained. Quoting Humpty Dumpty from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There,” Quattlebaum argued that Williams should not be permitted “to ‘use a word’ and declare ‘it just means what I choose it to mean.’ After all, we are not in Wonderland.”
“Evolution as to the meaning of words and phrases,” wrote Quattlebaum, “even if that occurred here, does not modify the statute’s terms. The Constitution places the responsibility to amend or not amend statues on the legislature — not on us and certainly not on the APA.”
In his dissent, Quattlebaum also argued that Williams’ claim that an individual “with gender dysphoria may need feminization or masculinization of the body through hormone therapy and/or surgery to alleviate and effectively treat the condition’ does not imply the existence of a pre-existing physical impairment.”
He indicated that, according to the reasoning accepted by the other judges and advanced on Williams’s behalf, “all gender identity disorders must result from physical impairments.”
Sheriff Kincaid could possibly seek a rehearing or appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. If not, the lawsuit will return to the district court.
Circuit Judge Motz, who wrote the opinion, and Judge Harris who joined, were appointed by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively. Judge Quattlebaum, who dissented, was appointed by former President Donald Trump.